Why it can be Tricky to Analyse Behaviour -Even a Genius Gets it Wrong!

Today I watched a youtube clip of a genius scientist who still failed to define a basic concept in behavioural science.    

He solves complex problems about theoretical physics in his day job. Yet he misapplied the term reinforcement when talking about tweaking Penny’s behaviour, his best friend’s girlfriend.

I am of course talking about the lovable Dr Sheldon Cooper from the TV show The Big Bang Theory (if you didn’t catch that reference, then we might have to re-evaluate our friendship!!).

Even though his genius is only fictional, the clip still brings up an interesting point.  The writers behind the series have accurately explained many concepts within the science of physics, but they were unable to do so for a fundamental principle from the science of behaviour.


Should we blame the genius for being inaccurate or behavioural science for being confusing?

Psychology was referred to by my chemistry student classmates as “not a real science” or an “easy subject”. And even though these comments were made in jest, you could tell that they believed there was some truth in this. But I wonder now whether they would be able to define what exactly causes behaviour, if even Sheldon Cooper could not.

Before we go further, let’s take a closer look at the clip that sparked off this debate https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JA96Fba-WHk

In the video Sheldon uses positive reinforcement to reward Penny for doing (what he considers!) to be correct behaviour. Ethically a little shaky and chocolates definitely are not the only type of positive reinforcer that you can use, but really is a good example of using positive reinforcement.  He says “Using positive reinforcement techniques I could train that behaviour out of her in a week…” A fair point.

But then Sheldon says something incorrect!


I had to watch the clip a few times just to reassure myself that I wasn’t mistaken. Sheldon making an error when it comes to talking about science is pretty rare and kind of shocking to hear. But he goes to say “You let me use negative reinforcement and I could get it done before we go to bed”.

He is making probably one of the most common mistakes that people make when it comes to talking about behaviour.

Sheldon wants to reduce Penny’s high pitched irritating laugh. Reinforcement is used to increase a behaviour’s occurrence over time (Watson & Skinner, 2001). Therefore, it would not make sense to use negative reinforcement to reduce her behaviour (or in his words, to “train her out of it”), because using reinforcement would make Penny’s irritating laugh occur more frequently. And that is definitely NOT what he wants!


Instead, Sheldon wants to reduce the frequency of her annoying laugh. If you are reducing a behaviour’s frequency, then you are using the behavioural consequence known as punishment (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). In essence, it is the opposite of reinforcement. Reinforcement increases behaviour. Punishment decreases behaviour.

And because Sheldon wants to apply electric shocks (!) to reduce the number of annoying girly laughs, he is implying that he wants to use positive punishment. The punishment is labelled “positive”, not because it is “good” or “nice”. In behaviour babble terms “positive” in this context means that you are applying or adding something to the environment, after a behaviour (Watson & Skinner, 2001). Since he wants to reduce Penny’s behaviour, he needs to deliver something that she will find aversive, such as water spray or an electric shock (!!) to reduce the frequency of her annoying laugh.

So to recap, what Sheldon should have said is “You let me use positive punishment and I could get it done before we go to bed”.

But is it fair to blame Sheldon for simply not doing enough reading up on the subject? 


I don’t think so.

When I first started learning about behavioural science, I got the terms positive/negative reinforcement mixed up too. If this is the case for you, check out this article here that could help you. I still occasionally have those moments of doubt. Even professors who really know their behavioural stuff can sympathise with feeling a bit ‘stupid’. Indeed you only need to look at the comments section of that Big Bang clip to doubt what you know about behavioural science. Is it any wonder that such fiery debates are being sparked?

Here is my breakdown of the three reasons why it can be difficult to understand behaviour analysis.

1.We think we know behaviour

Behaviour is tricky to analyse correctly because we all do it. We perform thousands of different behaviours in a day. So we think that we know how to decipher it. But behaviour is also fluid. It is difficult to pin down, let alone to correctly label the consequence that you are using to change behaviour.  As Aubrey Daniels said in his book Other People’s Habits, “Even though behavioural principles are simple to understand, they are hard to apply, because when we apply them to the behaviour of others, we cannot exempt ourselves from the process” p66.

2. The type of consequence can change, depending on the person!

We can have a tendency to conjure up our own preconceived ideas about certain things and how they reliably affect the behaviour of everyone in the exactly the same ways. Everyone likes chocolate, right? Wrong! People are unique and individual and surprising. One person might love being given chocolates for doing chores. Another might despise that chocolatey treat and never want to do chores for you again! All of our individual differences and preferences can make it difficult to look at behaviour through a more objective lens. What is reinforcing to one person’s behaviour might be very punishing for another.

3) Understanding the behaviour babble

I think that the biggest obstacle to understanding behavioural science is getting your head around the lingo that we use. 

The majority of people have heard of the terms “positive” “negative” “punishment” and maybe even“reinforcement” before. Therefore, when you happen to read up about behavioural analysis for the first time, you are likely to already have a preconceived idea of what these terms mean. When the behavioural definition that you learn doesn’t match up to the ones that you already know, then you have to relearn the term. And I personally think that this makes the process a lot more difficult to digest.

For example, a lot of people would describe themselves as positive, “happy” individuals. They might then believe that they deliver lots of positive reinforcement because they are a “nice” person. But as we discussed before, ‘reinforcement’ is defined as something which increases a behaviour’s frequency over time and ‘positive’ only means adding a stimulus to your environment. Therefore, they might be quite surprised to find out that they aren’t delivering as much positive reinforcement as they thought.  

What makes matters even more confusing is that the four types of consequences (positive or negative, reinforcement or punishment) mirror each other. They can have similar properties, with one subtly different feature which entirely changes their definition. I feel that it is the terms themselves, which we use to define some of the most fundamental concepts of our science, that are inherently confusing and difficult to understand.  

But, is there any way that we can resolve this confusion and make behavioural science more accessible to others? 

I think there is a way.

This is quite a bold statement, but if I could wave my magic wand, I would rename some (or all) of the four consequences of behaviour. 

Maybe I would keep the term “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement”. And maybe I would change “positive punishment” to the simpler title “punishment” since I believe this is essentially what “positive punishment” is describing. And maybe I would take another leaf out of Dr Aubrey Daniel’s book and rename “negative punishment” to be a”penalty” consequence (p52 of Other People’s Habits).

In any case, I believe that removing the dual ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ labels which are currently attached to the terms “reinforcement” and “punishment” would go a long way to adding greater clarity within the field of behaviour analysis, especially among those just discovering the science. It could mean the difference between sparking a lifelong interest in behavioural science and frustrating someone to the point of forgetting all about it. 

Obviously, this change is only something I would like to happen. A geeky little dream of mine. To change this concept you would have to reprint a hell of a lot of psychology textbooks. But crazier things have happened in the world. Pluto became a planet in 1930 and was then denounced of its title in 2006, 76 years later. If we can denounce a planet then surely we can alter the labels that we use to represent our most fundamental definitions in behaviour analysis?

And ultimately, shouldn’t our main priority be to make behavioural science more accessible to everyone?

Until then I guess we will all just have to grapple with the behaviour babble and deal with it!


All images within this article were obtained from Giphy.
Cover image via google ‘labelled for reuse’ images


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Watson, T. S., & Skinner, C. H. (2001). Functional behavioral assessment: Principles, procedures, and future directions. School Psychology Review, 30(2), 156-172.